Hot summer reads: something hot, not too heavy: sizzling selections for summer: the books everybody will be reading and talking about this summer, or at least the ones the publishers hope will catch fire

Hot summer reads: something hot, not too heavy: sizzling selections for summer: the books everybody will be reading and talking about this summer, or at least the ones the publishers hope will catch fire

Summertime and reading go together like iced tea and lemon. From the time we are schoolchildren, we are hardwired to think of this season as one that stretches before us with hours of leisure to fill. Even when we grow up and realize we still have to work–except in those stolen moments with our families and friends we call weekends or vacations–we anticipate the months when life slows down a little.

Given a few hours of waiting in airports, sitting on a beach or just lounging in the backyard (okay, or just trapped in the subway), booklovers will choose to fill them with reading. Now’s the time for that novel or biography you just had not gotten around to reading. Publishers know this, and they plan to put some tantalizing offerings on our plates, hoping that enough of us will nibble to put their prized project on all the important best-seller lists and keep them there this fall. Options for African American readers seeking fiction or nonfiction of particular interest to us are increasing year by year and, more than ever, are spread throughout the months.

This summer, the choices abound, and the publishers have been promoting titles heavily for months. The editors of Black Issues Book Review began our planning for the annual summer reading issue months ago, sifting through the publishers’ advance catalogues, talking to publicists and just listening to what “the drums” were saying about this of that upcoming title. We especially looked for ones that publishing insiders were really pushing and that had a lot of “buzz” going–even sight unseen by ordinary readers. We read as many advance editions as we could get our hands on, dividing up books among the editing staff and reporting back on our discoveries. Here is what we found:

LITERARY HIGHLIGHTS: MASTERS AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME

These new works from established authors show why they have staying power

American Desert by Percival Everett Hyperion, May 2004 $24.95, ISBN 0-786-86917-8

Readers usually expect the wonderfully absurd from Everett. And with his latest novel, they’re not at all disappointed. The protagonist is among the most interesting fictional characters created in some time. College professor Theodore Street was planning suicide when he is suddenly killed in a car accident. Then at his funeral, “… as the choir ended its final amen with a harmonious hum, Theodore Street sat up in his coffin.”

Acclaimed writer Everett has created an eerie and well-crafted ghost story that tells, strangely enough, of the value of being alive. Everett, who has produced 14 novels, has written a satirical and smart story that pokes fun at academia as well as religion, and it imagines the craziness that stems flora a culture’s misplacement of its priorities.

A One Woman Man by Travis Hunter One World/Ballantine Books, June 2004 $22.95, ISBN 0-375-50896-1

Hunter’s fourth novel centers around the bonds of siblings and the importance of family. Dallas Dupree hadn’t always found it hard to commit his heart. Ever since his Mrs. Right died while giving birth to their daughter, he can’t seem to find another woman who comes close to measuring up. When his daughter goes to live with his sister, Carmen, trouble erupts. And although he hasn’t kept in touch with their older brother, who has mysterious and shifty ways, Dallas and Carmen turn to him for help.

Hunter’s dialogue is urban contemporary and quick, and the story his characters tell makes one think about the consequences that result from the choices we can make.

Camilla’s Roses by Bernice L. McFadden Dutton, April 2004 $23.95, ISBN 0-525-94796-5

In her fifth novel, McFadden tells the story of a troubled woman named Camilla who must confront a chaotic yet loving family history and breast cancer. As she is forced to face her past and her future, Camilla discovers the bittersweet limits of motherhood and the power of reconciliation. Her story is both sad and triumphant.

McFadden, once again, draws endearing characters and her storytelling reveals many truths about black family life; even if the reader has heard much of it before, the images and voices manage–just in the nick of time–not to fall into the cliche category.

Drive Me Crazy by Eric Jerome Dickey Penguin, July 2004 $23.95, ISBN 0-525-94790-6

Dickey is back this summer as well with a new book. This time, it’s the story of an ex-con who wants to set things right. That is a little complicated since he shares a secret and has shared more than a little bit of time with the wife of his boss. The lead character is Driver, a chauffeur by day. Dickey’s last novel, Naughty of Nice, a Christmas release last year (see BIBR, November-December 2003) has done very well and the publisher is hoping for a repeat success this summer.

Little Scarlet: An Easy Rawlins Mystery by Walter Mosley Little Brown & Company, July 2004 $24.95, ISBN 0-316-07303-2

Walter Mosley’s latest writing streak–Fear Itself Bad Boy Brawly Brown, The Man in My Basement–does not seem to have diluted the quality of his output. In July, he releases this new Easy Rawlins mystery, Little Scarlet, which is as engaging as its predecessors and being touted by the publisher as his “greatest achievement.” That is a lot to live up to, but this could be it.

In a story that begins with the tires of the 1965 Watts riot still burning–and borrows from events of more recent L.A. eruptions–Mosley puts Easy in the role of “consultant” to the police who are trying to figure out how a black woman ended up murdered in her apartment. It is not far from where a white man had been dragged from a truck by a mob and where a white man was later seen leaving the scene of the murder.

Ezekiel Rawlins, school custodian by day, unofficial detective as needed, learns of the crime when he is mysteriously whisked away to a secret location and told some particulars. It would not be safe, the officials say, for the public to speculate about the racial angles in the middle of a barely controlled situation. White detectives in Watts would only fuel the tension. And so off Easy goes. Mosley writes it in the spare, snappy, gritty but somehow light prose for which he has been ordained above all others in this genre. (We can see a movie deal in the works.)

SECOND ACTS

After strong debuts, these authors return with new efforts worth the wait.

Dad Interrupted by Van Whitfield Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, June 2004 $12.95, ISBN 0-385-50818-2

On New Year’s Eve, while on camera for a TV show, Shawn Wayne confesses to his girlfriend–and the audience–that his “sort of ex” is pregnant. And he’s not even sure if the baby is his. This scenario begins a madcap story that centers on the relationships of Shawn; his girlfriend, Dawn; his ex, Troi; his friend and coworker, Kelly; and his boyhood friend Donnie.

As in his debut novel, Beeperless Remote (BIBR, May-June 1999 and September-October 2001), Whitfield’s writing is as face-paced and witty as any network sitcom. Here, he includes “The Official Baby’s Mamma Checklist” and a listing of “The Seven Different Types of Dads” in this romantic comedy that takes a stab at young, black fatherhood.

Floating by Nicole Bailey-Williams Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, May 2004 $10.95, ISBN 0-767-91564-X

In Floating, the follow up of her first novel, A Little Piece of Sky (see BIBR, November-December 2000), Bailey-Williams portrays the sensitive emotions of a young biracial girl seeking to carve out her own identity and to feel secure and accepted in both the “white” and the “black” worlds. Shanna is fragile: “Like my skin, the pale skin that traps my tortured soul inside. Like the skin I want to destroy.”

Bailey-Williams employs a creative style to tell the story. Shanna’s days are described in short vignettes, some of which read like poems, others like excerpts from a diary, and it is this part of the novel, sans dialogue, that makes the reader feel like a close friend as Shanna declares her self-discovery.

Love and Death in Brooklyn by Glenville Lovell G.P. Putnam’s Sons, August 2004 $23.95, ISBN 0-399-15197-4

Lovell follows his first book, Too Beautiful to Die (see BIBR, May-June 2003) with another mystery that is filled with his signature sharp dialogue and detail-oriented style.

Blades Overstreet returns in the latest crime novel. This time, the ex-cop with the NYPD has his own business, Caribbean Music City, and has reconciled with his wife. All seems peaceful until his good friend’s son, a young black politician with a promising career, is murdered right before his eyes. The victim’s father was also Blades’ mentor, and Blades cannot rest until the murderer is found.

The story line echoes today’s news head lines, and mixed with Lovell’s portrait of the Brooklyn Caribbean community, its residents and its tensions all make for a provocative story.

One Foot in Love by Bil Wright Touchstone, March 2004 $12.00, ISBN 0-743-24640-3

The author of Sunday You Learn How to Box (see BIBR, January-February and May-June 2000), creates a sisterhood of one-of-a-kind characters who inspire a widow suffering from the tragic loss of her husband, through her process of grief and going on.

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades: A Novel by Alice Randall Houghton Mifflin Co., May 2004 $24.99, ISBN 0-618-43360-0

Alice Randall, you may recall, is the woman whose 2001 book The Wind Done Gone (see BIBR, May-June 2001), a parody of Gone With the Wind, told from the perspective of Scarlett’s half-white half-sister, inspired a legal challenge from Margaret Mitchell’s estate. (A federal judge blocked publication but an appeals court opened the way for it to be published.)

Now the award-winning author is back with an odd piece of literary fiction that is getting lots of preliminary hype. Briefly: it is the story of Windsor Armstrong, a professor of Russian literature, who reminisces about hauling her pregnant body around Harvard as an undergraduate as she prepares for the wedding of her only son, Pushkin X, a famous football player. His mother has never revealed the identity of his father to the boy. He is about to marry a woman invariably described as “a Russian lap dancer.” His mother is disinvited to the wedding. The rest is her journey of discovery, so to speak, about how all this came to be.

It is a richly textured, witty, and historically interesting novel, including (relevantly) a 25-page hip-hop poem. The book is so elegantly packaged that the poem is printed on gray paper and thus can be found by just looking at the book’s edges. Not just the characters, but also the themes are racial in nature and seriously sophisticated.

Seeking Salamanca Mitchell by Kenji Jasper Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, July 2004 $12.95, ISBN 0-767-9165-1

Benjamin Baker loves music. In fact, he is just as aroused playing the piano as if he might be caressing a young lady. When Ben attempts to give his musical aspirations a financial boost, he becomes mixed up in a robbery, serves time in prison and then hopes to pick up his life where he left off after his release. But this is no easy task; the challenges he faces to reconnect with his love Salamanca don’t seem to let up. Written with tight and gritty narrative, as with his debut, Dark (see BIBR, July-August 2001),

Jasper paints the story of young man’s fears and hopes, with much of today’s pop culture, social and emotional.

Symptomatic by Danzy Senna Riverhead/Penguin, May 2004 $22.95, ISBN 1-573-22275-5

Two biracial women of different generations develop a friendship that sours and the younger must examine issues of intimacy, identity and passing. This is the long awaited second novel by the author of Caucasia, (see BIBR, January-February 2000).

DAZZLING DEBUTS

First novels are always a risk–for the writer and for you, the reader. Sometimes it takes sticking with a story until the author finds the right voice or plot line or gets the setting in sharp focus. Often, reading a talented new writer is like meeting a magnetic stranger with whom one becomes an instant friend, and the hours passed feel like minutes. Here are strong first novels for various tastes whose pages you can absorb like first friends.

Asphalt by Carl Hancock Rux Atria Books, May 2004 $24.00, ISBN 0-743-47400-7

“He was coming from, I was walking toward. I was walking toward something, having arrived at nothing.” The first lines of this first fiction effort by a poet/playwright/performing artist promises a melange of literary forms and edgy melancholy characters. (Pagan Operetta, Rux’s book of verse, BIBR, March-April 2000 and January-February 2001) The publishers describe the book as “part postmodern parable, part contemporary urban portrait,” but parts aside, it is as fully formed, like an existentialist poem.

Blood on the Leaves by Jeff Stetson Warner Books, July 2004 $24.00, ISBN 0-446-52706-8

Stetson’s debut novel is a high-octane legal thriller that puts the justice system on the stand. Deputy District Attorney James Reynolds, the only black prosecutor in Jackson, Mississippi, has been assigned to prosecute Martin Matheson, an out-spoken, black university professor who is the prime suspect in the murder and disappearance of several white men who were known to be connected with the killing of blacks in the 1960s, but were all set free. In his search to uncover the truth about the case at hand, Reynolds also comes to grips with his own ideas about justice and vengeance.

A cast of well-developed characters and modern day thoughts about the Civil Rights Era and retributions keep the reader engaged. But it is Stetson’s smart and amusing prose and his overall originality that will keep the reader hanging on to the very end.

Shifting Through Neutral by Bridget M. Davis Amistad/HarperCollins, May 2004 $23.95, ISBN 0-060-57249-3

A father-daughter theme makes this debut novel a standout in today’s family and relationship fiction. Davis, an independent filmmaker, uses driving as a metaphor throughout the narration by a woman looking back on her challenging childhood in Motown–era Detroit.

BEST PICKS FROM JOURNALISTS CUM NOVELISTS

Magazine writers are mining the territory of their day jobs to write bankable novels that bring readers inside the worlds of music and fashion glitterati.

The Accidental Diva by Tia Williams G. P. Putnam’s Sons, April 2004 $23.95, ISBN 0-399-15201-6

Williams, beauty director of Teen People, writes a sexy boy-meets-girl novel, except this is the very entertaining b-boy meets bourgie working girl variety. This debut is smartly set in domains the author knows well–offices of high-fashion publishing and black box performance spaces of the Lower East Side.

All I Need to Get By by Sophfronia Scott St. Martin’s Press, March 2004 $13.95, ISBN 0-312-31856-1

Scott, former editor of People magazine, has crafted a coming-home novel, as her lead character is forced to leave her hard-won life and career in New York City and return to dark secrets and bad memories of her Midwestern home. This first effort has earned notices from Benilde Little, Veronica Chambers and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The Blackbird Papers by Ian Smith, M.D. Doubleday, June 2004 $24.95, ISBN 0-385-51136-1

Smith, a medical doctor and former Time and Newsweek columnist, also held posts at NBC News and The Today Show. Now he has created FBI agent Sterling Bledsoe and constructed a complicated, racially charged mystery that Bledsoe must deconstruct. While this is no medical thriller, Smith’s science background is put to good use in his debut novel.

Bling by Erica Kennedy Miramax Books/Hyperion, June 2004 $24.95, ISBN 1-401-35215-4

Kennedy, who covers entertainment and fashion for Vibe, Us Weekly and In Style, has penned a Valley of the Dolls for the hip- hop generation. A singer flora the Midwest comes to New York City to audition for a spot on a major rap label and the name-dropping, label-lording, page-turning begins. Bling is an indication that street fiction is starting to go mainstream–rights have been sold for a major film release.

DISCOVERIES FROM THE DIASPORA

New writing from authors of African descent across the globe.

Graceland by Chris Abani Farrar, Straus & Giroux, February 2004 $24.00, ISBN 0-374-16589-0

A coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria in the late 1970s, with characters that are wholly surprising and starkly modern. Abani, who was persecuted for his writing and went into exile in 1991, examines the influence of American culture on postcolonial Nigeria. He is a recipient of the PEN USA Freedom to Write Award.

Links by Nuruddin Farah Riverhead Books, April 2004 $24.95, ISBN 1-573-22265-8

Farah, an acclaimed Somalian-born novelist, draws upon his homeland as the backdrop of his latest novel. The main character, Jeebleh, like the author, has been in exile for years. Jeebleh returns home to tend to the affairs of his deceased mother. But once there, he embarks on a rescue mission involving the kidnapping of the niece of his oldest friend. During his chaotic journey, Jeeblah is forced to face questions regarding his identity as both a Somali who had deserted his family and country and as an American who has settled in a new “home.” Farah’s writing flows with a poetic rhythm that is found even when he describes some of the most gripping scenarios. This work is a fine example of a writer who demands wider attention.

The Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 2004 $23.00, ISBN 0-374-20008-4

The South African author of The Heart of Redness (BIBR, September-October 2001) writes about forbidden relationships during the apartheid era. Beginning with a fictional account based on an actual trial in 1971 in which blacks and whites in a small town were charged with the crime of miscegenation, the story portrays the characters through the end of apartheid where racial interactions and identities are no less complex than before.

REAL PEOPLE, REAL STORIES

These nonfiction titles are proof that art does indeed imitate life. They’re as entertaining as fiction yet they bring to the page people we’ve not met in quite this manner before.

Black Power Inc.: The New Voice of Success by Cora Daniels John Wiley & Sons, April 2004 $24.95, ISBN 0-471-47090-2

A writer for Fortune magazine sets out to explore the minds of post–Civil Rights Era black corporate professionals, the generation that had absolutely no connection to the struggles of that time–her generation. Perhaps surprising to some readers, she concludes that race matters for them and to them more than it ever has. However, she sees them as pushing for success not so much for themselves as for an ideal of some collective means of wielding the power that has long eluded the race–thus the title. They see that battle as more likely to take place in the corporate world, she says, rather than in the streets of for that matter through political/governmental action.

Daniels also explores bow her generation frequently prefers the company of its own kind in the off-hours and insulates itself with the pleasures and diversions of African American culture. Whether you agree with her conclusions or not, and some may quibble with her view of the previous generation as preferring to deny race as an issue to blend in better, this is a book people are likely to be talking about and should be thinking about.

Sleepaway School: Stories From a Boy’s Life by Lee Stringer Seven Stories Press, June 2004 $21.95, ISBN 1-583-22478-5

Stringer’s moving memoir recounts his more than two years spent at Hawthorne Cedar Knolls in New York. To begin, Stringer and his brother were placed in foster care shortly after their birth, only to be reclaimed by their mother six years later. The homecoming, however, wasn’t all sweet. Trying to find his place in his new environment proved difficult. After being expelled from school, Stringer is sent to Hawthorne “Sleepaway School.” But at Hawthorne, Stringer begins his coming-of-age path, making new friends, some with similar backgrounds, and writing his first poems.

Now age 54, Stringer, author of Grand Central Winter (Washington Square Press, November 1999), is an acclaimed author, commentator on National Public Radio and boardmember of three nonprofit programs in New York. His story is both personal and universal; and at a time when young boys need both guidance and hope, Stringer’s voice is welcoming.

Sister Gumbo: Spicy Vignettes From Black Women on Life, Sex & Relationships by Ursula Inga Kindred and Mirranda Guerin-Williams St. Martin’s Press, August 2004 $13.95, ISBN 0-312-32679-3

Originally self published as Sister Gumbo: Life, Sex, and More Sex, this collection is by two sisters who present vignettes based on extensive interviews with more than 20 African American women. The stories help women understand that our experiences may of may not be like those of others, but sharing them can sometimes strengthen others. Memorable ingredients flora lots of spicy women end up in this “gumbo.”

SERIOUS SUMMER SUBJECTS

For those readers whose minds need solid fare, even in the summer, we found stimulating books by veteran journalists.

The End of Blackness by Debra J. Dickerson Pantheon Books, January 2004 $24.00, ISBN 0-375-42157-2

“This book will prove and promote the idea that the concept of ‘blackness,’ as it has come to be understood, is rapidly losing its ability to describe, let alone predict or manipulate, the political and social behavior of African Americans” reads the jacket of this recent addition to the growing body of literature that seems to pose “blackness” as a problem–rather than deeply rooted oppression. A memoir, An American Story (BIBR, November-December 2000), preceded this volume by a Harvard-educated lawyer and published journalist.

A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard French Knopf, April 2004 $25.00, ISBN 0-375-41461-4

A senior writer for The New York Times, French has spent 20 years living in or writing about Africa. This book is his deeply felt reporting and reflection on contemporary Africa, its people, politics, pawning by the West and, despite AIDS, dictators and genocide, its possibilities for the future.

AND GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN

Beautylicious! The Black Girl’s Guide to the Fabulous Life by Jenyne M. Raines Harlem Moon/Broadway Books January 2004 $12.95, ISBN 0-767-91110-5

With a nod to her muses like Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross and Pam Grier, Raines, a former associate beauty editor at Essence, has crafted a sister-style guide on how bring out your personal beautyliciousness.

The book abounds with more lighthearted girly tips, like what to pack in your tiny evening clutch, how to snag designer pieces without paying top dollar, how to keep your hair looking fabulous while globe-trotting and how to find the perfect shade of foundation. Raines, however, gives equal time to the importance of keeping our minds and bodies healthy by visiting our doctors and therapists if we need to, of donating our time and money to charity, of being politically informed and of finding some kind of spiritual center.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Cox, Matthews & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group